By David Lias
To arm or to not arm school employees?
That was the issue that District 17 legislators grappled with during a legislative forum held Saturday morning.
Freshmen State Reps. Ray Ring, Vermillion (D), Nancy Rasmussen, Hurley (R) and Sen. Tom Jones, Viborg (D) addressed a large audience during the two-hour meeting held in Vermillion City Hall meeting chambers.
The event was sponsored by the Legislative Affairs Committee of the Vermillion Chamber of Commerce and Development Company (VCDC), the VFW Auxiliary, the Clay County Democrats and the Clay County Republicans.
Ring noted that school sentinel legislation – HB 1087 – had been approved by the state House just days earlier on Jan. 29, and is scheduled to now be heard by a Senate committee.
The proposed legislation would allow districts to arm school employees, hired security personnel or volunteers. The bill leaves discretion up to the schools. Proponents argue it grants more local control to districts, especially those that are not located near law enforcement, to train and arm their own security and staff. Those against the bill say more guns are not the answer.
According to the bill, the school board must run its security plan by the county sheriff before implementing a sentinel program. Willing volunteers, staff and hired security personnel are also mandated to go through state training and certification in order to implement a program.
“The initial bill that was brought had no provision for training for these school sentinels,” Ring said, adding that the legislation was approved by the House Education Committee on Friday, Jan. 25 and received considerable debate on the House floor Jan. 29 before receiving approval by state representatives. “We made the bill more acceptable, in my opinion, with an amendment that requires that people, before they become school sentinels, receive training.
“I spoke against the bill in the committee, and on the floor,” he said. “I think it’s a bad idea, and it will now go to the Senate side, where I believe it has been referred to the Senate State Affairs Committee. I’m afraid it’s going to pass. The governor hasn’t committed himself, yet. He’s pretty much hedged so far.”
Rasmussen said that although she doesn’t serve on the Education Committee, she sat in on the committee’s meeting when it heard testimony regarding the school sentinel legislation.
“I just think it’s a really important bill,” she said. “The testimony was long, and it was emotional, because the safety of our children is emotional for us.”
Rasmussen said she was surprised the bill passed by a close vote – 8 to 7 – in the House committee. She said she believes the strong emphasis on local control in the legislation, which leaves the ultimate decision on whether guns are allowed in schools up to school boards, is to satisfy the concerns of West River lawmakers.
She said the bill’s primary sponsor, along with lawmakers from western South Dakota, are concerned about security, response times and other issues in sparsely populated areas of the state, where schools are more isolated.
“I and my husband made phone calls over the weekend, because with the local control, I thought the bill was addressing the school boards, and we didn’t have any school board members come (to Pierre),” Rasmussen said. “In our calling, I had two in favor of the bill and one against. Ray and I talked about this … Ray received e-mails that were the opposite. I wanted to poll the people of District 17, and I was surprised by the people who said yes, and I was surprised by the people who said no.
“I think it’s scary; I think guns and the things we’ve been seeing in our society are scary,” Rasmussen said. “I voted for this, because the people I contacted were 2 to 1 in favor of this.”
Jones said he is concerned about putting too many weapons in school buildings.
“The best solution that I’ve heard, to date, is that we have each classroom with inside door locks,” he said. “And if those classrooms have windows, they should be covered on the inside with some type of mesh.”
Jones said he is also concerned with the extra challenges this bill may pose to law enforcement.
“When a police officer responds to something happening at a school, the first thing he looks for is somebody else with a weapon. I’m not comfortable with that,” he said.
Becky Rider, who teaches at Vermillion Middle School, asked the lawmakers if they had sought input from students.
“I did, and when they heard you were debating a bill that would allow weapons in schools, my seventh-graders said to me, ‘Why?’ Our kids are concerned,” she said, “but they also understand that statistically, their chance of being involved in a school shooting is roughly that of being struck by lightning.
“It seems to me we’re spending a lot of time on something that has a miniscule chance of happening,” Rider said, “and there’s a 100 percent chance that the kids in our district are in classrooms that have seen the effects of 8.6 percent cuts in the last few years and maybe that’s where you should be spending your energy.”
The three legislators responded that they didn’t seek input from students.
“I didn’t think about asking students because the bill is focused at the local level, which is school boards,” Rasmussen said. “I do think hearing what students have to say about this is a good idea, though.”
“Nancy has mentioned school boards a couple different time, and I don’t remember hearing from any school board members from here,” Ring said.
He noted that he was strongly influenced by two people who testified before the Education Committee. Both individuals have long-time military experience; one serves on a school board; the other serves as school superintendent.
“They both gave, I thought, truly compelling testimony that without training, these people are an accident waiting to happen,” Ring said, noting that one of the unintended consequences of this legislation will be an inevitable accidental shooting.
“That really was the reason I voted against this bill,” Ring said. “I just think putting guns in school, especially out of the hands of law enforcement officials, is just ridiculous.”
Ring and Rasmussen, both newcomers to the state Legislature, told the forum audience that their experience in Pierre has, so far, been positive.
“Being a freshman, I’ve been very pleased with the atmosphere in the Capitol,” Rasmussen said. “Everybody works together well, everybody is respectful and everyone has been very, very helpful in introducing me to how everything works so we can get involved in the process.
“I have to agree with Nancy – the atmosphere is a lot different than what I expected,” Ring said, “and as best I can tell, it’s a lot different than what it’s been for the last couple years.”
Jones, who served in the state House of Representatives before being elected to the state Senate last fall, told the forum audience he is encountering new experiences this session, also, thanks mainly to his being a member of the Appropriations Committee.
“We (committee members) are absolutely, totally isolated from the rest of the Legislature. We start at 7:15 every morning … we have a briefing from the Legislative Research Council, and at 8 a.m., we go live on the Internet and we have hearings from each department within the government,” he said. “We hear what their budget requests are and also their relationship to what the governor requested in his budget address last December. “
Jones said the committee adjourns each day at about noon, and members then prepare to take part in the day’s legislative session on the House floor at 1 p.m.
Later in the afternoon, after the session has adjourned for the day, it is not unusual for the Appropriations Committee to meet once again to receive additional input, he said.